Knowledge is not just empowering. Knowledge also shapes us. It shapes our behavior. It makes us who we are. Simply put, what we think we know tells us how to act. The cliche is 'knowledge is power.' The sociological truth underlying the cliche is less sexy: 'knowledge shapes behavior.' So then, the presidential campaign ends tomorrow -- how did knowledge shape who will be our next president?
The 'wrong track-right track' measurement of Americans' attitudes is the piece of data that most significantly shaped this presidential race. In the current year of 2008, according to one of many measures, 78 percent of Americans say we are on the wrong track while only 4 percent say we are on the right track. That is an unmistakable mandate for a new track. As a piece of knowledge, these data pushed the presidential race in a fascinating direction.
First, we should understand: these wrong-track numbers represent more than the thinking of individual Americans. And they represent more than America's collective conscious. More importantly, the wrong-track data represent the perceived knowledge of both the McCain and the Obama campaigns. What I mean is: The wrong-track numbers are not just a fact about us; the numbers represent perceived knowledge by us. These wrong-track numbers created the race that we have all collectively experienced. The fact that the campaigns knew these numbers determined how the campaigns interpreted their enviroment and were the reason behind the campaign's tactics. Both the McCain team and the Obama team knew the country wanted 'change,' and both behaved accordingly. If Sen. Obama had not known the wish for change, he might never have run for president this early in his political career, in the first place, and run a 'change you can believe in' campaign in the second place. And it is easy to think that Sen. McCain too, had he no knowledge of that data, would have run a considerably different campaign.
First, Sen. Obama. The wrong-track knowledge not only gave power to the Democratic challenger to think he had a chance. It determined Sen. Obama's whole campaign. Sen. Obama and his team seized on the 'change' mantra from the beginning, and never relented it. 'Change' was their entire strategy wrapped up into one word. It articulated just about everything a large voting block of Americans needed to hear.
Second, the knowledge shaped the Republican campaign, too. In my estimation, the huge wrong-track numbers led the McCain team to consider themselves underdogs in the race. They saw that Americans wanted 'change' and felt this created an environment not conducive to their victory. So they ran a wild campaign -- jumping from tactic to tactic, choosing a running mate that helped them in the short run but killed them in the long run, and at the end desperately pumping up a hollow 'Joe-the-Plumber' argument as the winning message.
The problem is, I think the McCain campaign made a strategic mistake. In the face of a liberal, anti-war, black candidate, Sen. McCain should have (a) emphasized his anti-Bush record and (b) run as an experienced, reliable, stable guy in a tough, complex world. He should have been 'experienced change,' change on the bad things, stability with the good things.
But instead of using the wrong-track numbers to their advantage, the McCain campaign tried to obscure them with wild behaviors. This was a huge mistake because, while Obama proponents conveniently forget this, Sen. McCain circa 2001 was the biggest thorn in the side of the Bush agenda. He could have used this fact to his advantage. He could have been the change agent. Someday someone will have to tell me, why didn't Sen. McCain remind us of his anti-Bush history everyday for the final five months of the campaign?
So in sum, the wrong-track knowledge not only represented America's collective conscious, it shaped both campaigns in ways that appear determinative. The following was clear months ago: The candidate who best managed this knowledge was going to win. Sen. McCain should have seen this writing on the wall. Sen. Obama did, and tomorrow, will receive his deserved victory.
The lesson to be learned is that in a world of media and marketing, political and economic winners do not unilaterally impose their message on the public. Instead, winners find their message within the consciousness of the men and women they hope to win over. Once leaders find the message, their job is to manage it their own favor.
The message this year was -- change. Had he accurately read his environment, Sen. McCain would have remained a liberal Republican, rather than tracking toward the Bush-wing of the Republican Party. My belief is, had he remained a Bush critic while articulating a stable persona, he would have won. In which case America would have a different President than it otherwise will have. Politicians: hone your analytical skills. Your future is that contingent upon how the you interpret present moment.
Here are the NY Times' wrong-track data, year-by-year:
I’d like you to compare the way things are going in the United States to the way they were going five years ago. Generally, would you say things are going better today, worse today or about the same today as they were going five years ago?
1986: 44-31 (Better to worse)1987: 38-31 1988: 30-34 1991: 25-31(March 3-6) 1991: 19-44 (October 15-18) 2003: 14-63 2004: 21-57 2005: 20-56 2006: 18-60 2008: 4-78